Sam Thompson (1916-65)


Life
b. 21 May 1916; 2, Montrose St., Belfast; one of four brothers, his father was part-time sexton of St Clement’s Church of Ireland, saving them from poverty; ed. locally; became apprentice painter at shipyard, at fourteen [var. 16]; voluntarily entered National Council of Labour Colleges; attended NCLC summer school in Paris, 1939; employed by Corporation after War; laid off on becoming shop steward, in which capacity he resisted the sectarian apportioning of work;
 
m. May Thompson, 1947; moved to Craigmore St.; began writing at 39; encouraged by Sam Hanna Bell, he wrote BBC radio plays and features from the 1950s, incl. Brush in Hand (1956), Tommy Baxter - Shop Steward (1957), and The General Foreman (1958), all giving graphic accounts of poverty and sectarian violence in Ulster working-class urban society;
 
wrote Over the Bridge (1957), first and only published play, composed during 1955-57, giving a candid portrayal of bigotry and discrimination; the play caused the break-up of Ulster Group Theatre in rehearsal when Ritchie McKee, a director and prominent Unionist, stopped rehearsals, May 1959, leading to resignation from the Group of other such as James Ellis, Maurice O’Callaghan, and Harold Goldblatt, and causing Jack Loudan to withdraw his new play;
 
Thompson successfully sued the Theatre for breach of contract; his play was later staged by ex-members as Over the Bridge Productions under direction of James Ellis, at the Empire Theatre, 26 Jan. 1960, running to full houses for six weeks (42,000 tickets) and touring Dublin, Scotland and England thereafter; Thompson commenced writing full-time, 1959; suffered heart attack presum. brought on by overweight, June 1961;
 
he resumed work as an actor on stage and TV, and undertook lecturing; produced The Evangelist, a raw attempt to deal with events of 1859, the ‘year of Grace’ in Ulster, produced by Louis Ellimann with Ray McNally as in the title-role as Pastor Earls (Belfast Opera Hse., 3 June 1963), and moved to Dublin; ran for S. Down as Labour candidate, 1964, a rural seat that he had no prospect of winning;
 
he wrote Cemented with Love (1965), dealing with political corruption and skullduggery during a Drumtory election, written for BBC television in 1964, only to be postponed in Sept.; re-postponed, Dec. 1964; and finally broadcast posthumously, April 1965; a stage-version was performed at Dublin theatre Festival, 1967; he died suddenly of heart attack, 15 Feb. 1965, in the offices of Northern Ireland Labour Party; a new play, The Masquerade, set in London,was discovered among his papers at his death. DIW DIL FDA DUB OCIL

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Works
Plays, The Evangelist (1961); Cemented With Love (1965), and The Masquerade, a last play, set in London, and unproduced; Stewart Parker, ed. & intro., Over the Bridge [1957] (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1970); John Keyes, ed., Over the Bridge and Other Plays (Belfast: Lagan Press 1997), 249pp.

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Criticism
  • Robert Hogan, After the Irish Renaissance (Minn. UP 1967; London: Macmillan 1968), pp.100-02;
  • Robert Hogan, Seven Irish Plays, Introduction (Minnesota UP 1967) [at which date none of his plays were yet published];
  • Sam Hanna Bell, ‘Theatre’, in Causeway: The Arts in Ulster, ed. Michael Longley (NI Arts Council 1971), pp.82-94, espec. pp.88-89;
  • Hagel Mengel, ‘A Lost Heritage, Ulster Drama and the Work of Sam Thompson’, in Theatre Ireland, 1 (Dept/Dec. 1982), pp.18-19; cont. in 2 (Jan/May 1983), pp.80-82;
  • P. Devlin, ‘First Bridge Too Far’, in Theatre Ireland 3 (June/Sept. 1983), pp.122-24;
  • Hagel Mengel, Sam Thompson and Modern Drama in Ulster (Frankfurt am Main, Bern, NY: Verlag Peter Lang 1986) [Over the Bridge, pp.248-299];
  • Lionel Pilkington, ‘Theatre and Cultural Politics in Northern Ireland: The Over the Bridge Controversy, 1959’, Éire-Ireland, Vol. XXX, No. 4 (Winter 1996), pp.76-93.

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Commentary
Sam Hanna Bell, ‘Theatre’, in Michael Longley, ed., Causeway: The Arts in Ulster (NI Arts Council 2971), pp.88-89: amid the opinions engendered by the play it was possible to detect a quite extraordinary feeling of relief that at last the unclean spirit of sectarianism had been dragged before the floodlights and examined with passion, pity and corrosive laugther. Thompson discovered, as had Ibsen, that “no dramatist lives through anything in isolation. What he lives through all his countrymen live through with him”.’ (p.89.)

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Stewart Parker, ed. & intro., Over the Bridge (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1970), ‘Introduction’ reprinted from Honest Ulsterman (Autumn 1994), pp.20-24, refers to the sarcasm of Capt. O’Neill, Northern Ireland PM, who spoke in 1964 of ‘a certain Mr Sam Thompson whose past experience is, I gather, in producing works of fiction’, and goes on, ‘bridges are a favourite NI metaphor [...] going Over the Bridge is another activity entirely, demanding a degree of guts and integrity which public life in Ireland has failed to cultivate, to say the least. Sam Thompson dedicated his life to it. He coaxed, commanded, persuaded, and implored his mulish countrymen to make the journey’; ‘he saw right from the start that poverty and sectarian violence were root and branch of the one ugly tree. Towards the end of The Long Street Back [his radio feature], there is an election street-corner rally, in which the usual Unionist hack is whipping up the crowd with the familiar demented slogans featuring Popery and the glorious siege of Derry. From the back of the crowd comes a lone dissenting shout, ‘You can’t ate Derry’s walls when you’re hungry’. Such sentiments led him into the classes of the National Council of Labour Colleges after he had followed his four brothers into a shipyard trade at fourteen [...]’; ‘A bone fide prophet [sic], he was far too much for the Belfast cultural establishment and it has never been the same since his eruption, thank God’; moved to wife’s family’s house at Craigmore St., nr. BBC; encountered Sam Hanna Bell locally, who told him to write it down; Over the Bridge, written 1955-57; part of Rabbie White conceived for J. G. Devlin; dir. James Ellis; requested changes; Thompson declined; production axed; Parker quotes public statement of the Directors; Thompson calls Council for Encouragement of Arts (&c) ‘the Encouragement for the Migration of Artists’; speaking of Davy Mitchell, the union leader of the 1930s (based on David Scarborough), Parker compares him to Everyman’s Good Deed, ‘so weak/That she can neither go nor speak’; Mob leader at opposite pole; ‘The English they all speak is the plain lean language of the Belfast streets, with its earnestness, harshness, and keenly funny sense of irony, far removed from the soaring dialect extravagances of O’Casey and Synge and yet as distinctively Irish for all that, and a vibrate flexible instrument in the mouths of actors. It was a dialogue that came readily to hand for the author.’ [23]; production of The Evangelist; circumstances of ill-health; political candidacy in S. Down, and postponement of Cemented with Love; ‘The three that reached the stage in his lifetime contain his complete diagnosis of Ulster’s disease. Over the Bridge shows sectarianism working its way through people’s lives, The Evangelist uncovers the fanaticism and hypocrisy deforming their religion, Cemented With Love uncovers the appalling corruption of their traditional political parties, Unionist and Nationalist’; ‘The painful missing factor in the whole Ulster equation is a sane and compassionate leader of the Protestant working class. There is no knowing how Sam Thompson would have fared in this perhaps impossible position, but he remains the nearest thing to such a man as we have yet seen. There can be no doubt that his work contributed to that extraordinary mass meeting in the shipyard of 15 Aug. 1969, at which the 8,000 workers, brought together by their shop stewards and in the midst of renewed civil anarchy and bloodshed, voted in maintaining “peace and goodwill in the yard and throughout the province” ...’. [Incls. photo port].

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Quotations
Over the Bridge (1970 edn), final words: ‘A man told me yesterday that when the mob went into action he walked away, and so did hundreds of so-called respectable workmates because they said it was none of their business. None of their business. Rabbie, that’s what they said. Then they walked away, and that’s what frightens me, they walked away.’ (See Loreto Todd, The Language of Irish Literature, 1989, p.83.)

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References
Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day Co. 1991), Vol. 3: selects Over the Bridge [1176-81], written 1955-57, cancelled in rehearsal as too controversial; finally produced to critical acclaim after court-case in 1960; set in Harland and Wolff, where Peter O’Boyle is a catholic victim of the incensed workforce, Davy Mitchell the level-headed trade-union official, Rabbie white the zealous, rule-bound member and the Leader, a characteristic example of the mob orator; presented by company formed by Thompson and others, Ulster Bridge Productions, Empire Theatre, Belfast, 26 Jan 1960; also, [60s new dramatist 1137-8]; BIOG 1305 [as above].

Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama (1987), lists RTÉ film, Over the Bridge, dir. Chloe Gibson (1970).

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Notes
Portrait: there is a pencil portrait of Sam Thompson by George MacCann; see Anne Crookshank, Irish Portraits Exhibition (Ulster Mus. 1965).